San Francisco Debates Reparations: $5 Million Each for Black Residents?
Emmanuel Felton, Washington Post, February 27, 2023
Tasked with calculating how much San Francisco should pay its Black residents for decades of discrimination, a government-appointed panel didn’t develop a mathematical formula. Instead, over the past year and a half, its 15 members have been studying the city’s history.
In the 1960s, city leaders demolished part of the Fillmore District, a neighborhood once known as the Harlem of the West, displacing 883 businesses and 20,000 people, most of them Black. Decades later, thousands of people remain displaced and the neighborhood has turned into a predominantly White enclave of multimillion-dollar homes.
To compensate for that and other instances of racial discrimination, the city’s African American Reparations Advisory Committee recently recommended that qualifying Black residents receive $5 million each in reparations.
“There wasn’t a math formula,” said Eric McDonnell, chair of the reparations committee and the principal of Peacock Partnerships, a San Francisco-based consulting firm. “It was a journey for the committee towards what could represent a significant enough investment in families to put them on this path to economic well-being, growth and vitality that chattel slavery and all the policies that flowed from it destroyed.”
The proposed reparations program is not a recompense for slavery, which was never legal in San Francisco, but instead, the committee’s report says, for “the public policies explicitly created to subjugate Black people in San Francisco by upholding and expanding the intent and legacy of chattel slavery.”
Across the country, more than a dozen cities and states have begun developing reparations programs, attempting to quantify the financial damage brought by slavery and decades of Jim Crow laws. Some proposals envision offering scholarships, or housing vouchers, while others call for Black Americans to receive cash payments.
But many are still struggling with one central question: How much?
Finding a price tag big enough to satisfy reparations advocates, and yet politically palatable to the many Americans polls have shown oppose financial restitution for Black Americans, could determine the fate of a movement that gained momentum after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 but has yet to find national acceptance.
San Francisco’s $5 million proposal, magnitudes larger than amounts being discussed in other communities, has drawn intense backlash from conservatives who lambaste the idea as financially ruinous for a city with an annual budget of $14 billion that is still recovering economically from the pandemic. The proposal doesn’t explain who would qualify, but if even a fraction of the city’s 50,000 Black residents met the criteria, it would consume a huge amount of the city’s annual budget.
Even some within the reparations movement have dismissed the figure as unrealistic.
But supporters of the proposal say it’s justified, noting that the city’s Black residents have a median income of about $44,000 compared with $85,000 for Latinos, $105,000 for Asians and $113,000 for White residents, according to 2021 census data.
The scale of the payment should be weighed against San Francisco’s history of racist policies, including enforcing housing and school segregation, said Sheryl Evans Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which provided research support to the reparations committee. The city also has one of the highest costs of living in the country with a median home price of $1.3 million, she said.
How San Francisco settles the debate could reverberate throughout the reparations movement, setting a high-water mark for an effort that has been criticized for, so far, producing small sums.
The debate has roiled local leaders in San Francisco, a liberal city where 85 percent of voters sided with President Biden.
Since the draft report’s release in December, the reparations committee has been inundated with hate mail, including emails and voice messages using explicit and racist language. Shamann Walton, the board member who authored the legislation creating the reparations panel, said in a recent Facebook post that members of his office, even interns, had received “threatening messages and some are fearful for their own lives.”
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the committee’s recommendations this year after a final report is released in June.
Despite the onslaught of criticism, some members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors say they stand behind the committee’s work.
“I think that the people who are so focused on the dollar amount are really just attempting to undermine reparations for Black people,” said Walton, the board’s only Black member. “People are going to have to get comfortable with the fact that to do reparations, there’s going to be some costs. and figuring out how to achieve that is where the real work happens.”
The city can lead on the issue of reparations as it has done on other progressive issues, said Supervisor Dean Preston, who said that while the $5 million figure accurately reflects the harm done to Black residents, he isn’t sure the city can afford it. “Honestly, half the things my office works on, people will say it’s impractical, it’s pie in the sky,” Preston said.
Despite being home to Silicon Valley’s tech billionaires, San Francisco faces a $728 million budget deficit over the next two years.